Disclaimers - See Part 1.
A SUMMER REUNION - PART 3
"I know a week on Saturday was meant to be our day off, Grig, but Alison needs our help so …."
As Summer had hoped, her second-in-command's objections died away at the mention of Alison, who was popular with the entire company.
"And I'll give everyone a day in lieu next month to make up for it," she continued persuasively.
Silence. "OK," he said eventually. "Where?"
Why do I let myself in for things like this? "Um … Alison's Mother's back garden."
"Have you two had too much sun?" Grigori's voice had shot up an octave.
Summer suppressed a laugh, knowing if she hadn't seen the plot of land in question, she'd have been as amazed as he was. More amazing still was the fact that the anal-retentive and Conservative voting Veronica Carmichael had agreed to loan it to her daughter for the Reunion. Alison must have done some pretty slick talking to get her even to contemplate having a circus marquee in her garden.
"It's big enough," she told Grigori. "Bigger than some sites we've pitched on."
She grinned as a thought struck her. She hadn't cleared the idea with Alison, but what the heck: 'In for a penny ….'"And Grig, since we'll have to be there to build up the Big Top anyway, why don’t we provide some entertainment. Nothing fancy, just our party pieces, you know?
The silence at the other end was followed by a sigh. "Juggling, acrobatics, knife throwing, stuff like that?"
"Yeah. Would the guys be up for it, d'you think? No payment, but I don’t see why they shouldn’t help themselves to food and drink. Alison's ordered far too much. She's based the quantities on how much she eats."
Grigori hadn't actually agreed to the entertainment yet, she noticed, and since he would be organizing everything while she was on her course, his agreement was vital. "The guests will be old friends of Alison's, and I'm sure she'll be very grateful …." She held her breath.
"Well," he said - and she could hear the smile in his voice. "As I think someone once said: 'What Alison wants, Alison gets'."
She let out her breath in relief. "You're a star, Grig …. By the way, who said that? Alison?"
"No, Boss. You did." He laughed and rang off.
Five minutes later, as Summer tried to concentrate on what Geoff Wyatt was telling the class about special effects, her cheeks were still warm.
When Alison saw the queue snaking onto the pavement outside the Post Office, she nearly turned round and left. Then she regarded the pile of letters in her hand, sighed, and joined the end.
She had been able to email a good percentage of the old girls with details of the change in the Reunion's venue, a map for those travelling under their own steam, and alternative transport arrangements for those who weren't. She'd left the details of the venue deliberately vague - the Big Top would have much more impact if it were a complete surprise. She was also aware some old girls might turn up their noses at a circus tent, and didn't want to give them the chance to back out until it was too late.
But those who weren't connected to the Internet had to be reached by good old snailmail, hence her trip to the main Post Office in the High Street.
The queue inched forward. Someone stood behind her.
The familiar voice made her skin crawl. Lauren Jarvis! She plastered a neutral expression on her face and turned round. "Lauren."
Anyone else would have seen a plump, blowzy looking housewife with a snot nosed toddler at her side, but Alison saw the girl whose 'gang of three' had made her schooldays hell.
"Posting letters?" asked Lauren.
Alison hid the address on the uppermost envelope, disguising the gesture with a shrug. "As you see." She kept her voice even. Shit! If Lauren recognizes the name and realizes there's a Reunion and she hasn’t been invited ….
Fortunately, the toddler, a little boy, chose that moment to tug at Lauren's skirt. "Mum," he whined. "I'm tired. Can we go home, yet?"
Lauren turned to him. "Mummy's got to pick up her child benefit, Sean. Won’t be long now."
I should have remembered Wednesday is Child Benefit Day, thought Alison grumpily. The queue shuffled forward a few feet; at least she was inside the Post Office itself now.
Lauren finished soothing her son and turned back to Alison. She eyed her empty ringfinger pointedly. "Still not married, I see?" her tone was mock sympathetic.
Alison thought it prudent not to respond.
The queue was moving much faster now, as cashiers opened closed counters, and Alison gained several yards. So did Lauren, unfortunately.
"Steady boyfriend?" continued her tormentor. "No, of course not. You always were too picky, weren't you, Ali?"
Alison gritted her teeth and prayed for rescue. To her surprise, she found herself abruptly at the head of the queue.
"Cashier Number Seven, please," announced the computerized queue handler.
With a sigh of relief she headed for the relevant counter.
"See you around, Ali," called Lauren.
"Not if I see you first," muttered Alison under her breath.
Summer surveyed her surroundings. Cox's Meadow was where the circus always pitched when it came to Cheltenham and it also had romantic associations since it was where she and Alison had first met …. But she suspected Alison hadn't come here to remember old times.
"It's Sunday," she said. "We could be home, in bed. So what the hell are we doing here?"
At the far end of the grassy meadow, beyond the food stalls and children's roundabouts, she could see … Oh God! Donkeys. She'd had enough of equines to last her for an entire year.
"My Fringe article," said Alison. "Remember?" She squeezed Summer's hand, noting the direction of her stare. "It's the Donkey Derby," she explained. "What's the matter. Sore bum?"
"And that's not all." Summer could give as good as she got. "My nipples will never be the same."
"Summer!" Alison looked round to make sure they hadn't been overheard.
Alison's blush made her look really cute, thought Summer, suppressing a grin.
The blonde made a quick recovery. "Can I help it if I get a bit carried away?"
"You carry on like this, and I'll be the one getting carried away … on a stretcher."
"Aw, diddums," said Alison unsympathetically. "Anyway, I'm not expecting you to actually take part in the Derby, you know.".
"That's a relief."
"I'll just take a few photos, talk to a few people, and then we'll be on our way. OK?"
Summer found herself a comfortable tuffet of grass to sit on, and watched the blonde wander around the meadow, smiling and chatting to children and their parents, admiring the rosettes they proudly displayed, taking photos, exclaiming and nodding … looking for all the world as though she were as interested in the outcomes of the donkey races as those taking part.
Which she probably was, thought Summer wryly. Alison was interested in everyone and everything.
As though she could sense Summer thinking of her, Alison glanced Summer's way. She winked at the blonde, then returned to her thoughts, closing her eyes and absorbing the warmth of the July sunshine.
Thank God there was only one week of the stunt course left, she thought wryly. She was knackered, and it wasn't all due to the antics of a certain green-eyed journalist who was standing not fifty yards away.
The stuntees had spent all yesterday on horseback, or rather falling off horseback. Summer now fully endorsed the famous definition of a horse: 'an animal which is dangerous at both ends and bloody uncomfortable in the middle'. She thought back to the early days of Summer's Circus and the ponies that had trotted round the ring while an acrobat twirled on their backs, and her admiration for the performers increased by leaps and bounds ….
"You ready, then? Or are you going to sit there all day?"
Summer opened her eyes to see Alison smiling down at her. With a groan, she stood up. "Yeah ready." She slipped an arm through Alison's, and the blonde smiled up at her.
"Don’t worry, old timer. I'll take it easy on you today."
"Hey! Who are you calling old?"
"Well, you are three years older than me."
"Two and a half."
"If you want to get technical …."
They ambled back towards the town centre, cutting through Sandford Park and stopping to admire the river Chelt.
"So, how are the Reunion arrangements going?" asked Summer.
A frown replaced the contented look on Alison's face. "Everything that can go wrong is going wrong," she said.
"Murphy's Law is the more polite one."
Alison sighed. "Want to hear the latest? I discovered the caterers Zoe booked were trying to cut corners to increase their profit margins. Well, I got that sorted out …. Then they discovered they wouldn't be catering at our agreed venue after all but at my Mother's house, using her kitchen - which is big but hardly set up for mass catering, and serving up in a tent. Well." She grimaced.
"They were not happy bunnies?"
"No," said Alison shortly. "Anyway," she sighed again. "I managed to talk them round, told them it would be good publicity, that they could take photos and use them as an illustration of the challenges they had overcome …."
"Challenges not problems. That’s good."
Alison smirked up at her. "I thought so … Anyway. That did the trick. We're back on an even keel today."
Summer chewed her lower lip thoughtfully. Another 'challenge' she had encountered, but couldn't mention to Alison without spoiling the surprise, concerned Miss Pargeter. She had rung the St. Helier number every night for the past week, and so far there had been no reply. Mike Donovan had assured her the number was correct and active, though, so Miss P must simply be on holiday. Well, all she could do was keep trying ….
They wandered back towards Montpellier, stopping in the Gardens to watch the Funfair that would be there for the duration of the Festival. One of the gaily painted merry-go-rounds was half empty, several of its riderless horses bobbing forlornly up and down.
Now those I can manage, thought Summer. She glanced at Alison and raised an eyebrow.
She looked significantly at the merry-go-round.
Understanding dawned on her companion's face. "We shouldn't." But Alison didn’t sound very convinced. "Those are meant for kids."
"Then why are the horses big enough for adults?"
Alison shook her head. "We mustn’t." She sounded more certain.
"Oh! Now you've done it." Summer let her smile turned dangerous. "You know what effect those words have on me."
The green eyes filled with apprehension mingled with delight, and when Summer took Alison's hand and tugged her towards the merry-go-round, the blonde only halfheartedly resisted.
"We're too old for this."
"Never too old," said Summer. "Besides, it'll be fun." She halted at the kiosk and searched her jacket pocket for money. "Two adults, please."
The bored looking young man came to life, took the money, and made change. Then he handed her two tickets and flashed her a grin which Summer returned then regretted as she felt his eager gaze follow her.
The merry-go-round slowed to a halt, and several overexcited kids tumbled off and, clamoring for another go, threw themselves into their parent's arms.
"Summer!" came a whimper from beside her.
Summer ignored Alison's protest, knowing it was only for form's sake, and considered the horses. Those two, side by side, one smaller than the other, looked perfect.
She helped Alison mount the smaller grey horse, then eased herself into the hard saddle of the palomino. Ouch! Forgot about the sore bum.
Alison clung like a limpet to her horse's neck. "If someone sees me … I'm dead!"
"I'll throw you a nice funeral," promised Summer.
The grinning attendant threw a lever, and the ride began .…
The Fringe Festival was nothing if not varied. As the days passed, Alison found herself: attending an exhibition of comic book artwork at the Museum and Art Gallery; flying a kite on a school playing field in Up Hatherley; listening to folk music in a smoke-filled pub; and dancing to an exuberant Samba Band on the Promenade. Then Thursday dawned, the day Dani was due to arrive ….
Alison had been rushed off her feet and was relieved to find she was only running ten minutes late when she finally found a parking spot in the Station carpark and got out.
"Over here, Ali."
Shading her eyes against the glaring afternoon sun, Alison turned towards the shout. A short woman with curly blonde hair, wearing mirrored sunglasses, was standing near the taxi rank. Alison jogged eagerly towards her.
"Hey there." Dani settled her sunglasses on top of her head, revealing twinkling grey eyes. She grinned at Alison.
"I've missed you." Alison hugged her old school friend fiercely.
Dani returned the hug then released her. "Me too."
Alison stepped back and appraised Dani's travelling outfit: Timberlands, blue jeans, and a black Buffy the Vampire Slayer T-shirt. She put a hand to her mouth. "Is this what diplomats are wearing these days?"
"Standard issue uniform." Dani returned the appraisal. "You've lost weight."
"And you've gained it." The too thin schoolgirl Alison had known was no longer in evidence
"That’s what good food and a happy love life will do for you, Alligator," said Dani complacently.
"Oh no!" groaned Alison. "Don’t let Summer hear you calling me that."
Dani grinned. "Hmmm." She looked thoughtful. "What's it worth?"
Alison sighed and pointed towards her car. "The green Fiesta's mine. And for that you can carry your own bag."
Dani's grin faded. "Me and my big mouth!" She reached for the heavy rucksack propped against the wall and hefted it over one shoulder.
They set off towards the car.
"So," said Dani, giving her a sidelong glance. "You're looking pretty good, kiddo. I take it you’re getting some at last."
Alison blushed fiercely and looked round to see if anyone had overheard. "Dani!"
"Food. I meant food," protested her friend, but her sly expression showed she hadn't meant anything of the kind.
"I'd forgotten what a handful you are," said Alison, as they reached the car.
"Two handfuls, actually. Joby likes his women to have a little flesh on them. Just as well. Did I mention he's a superb cook?"
"Only on every Christmas card." Alison took Dani's rucksack from her, then wished she hadn't. "You haven’t got the kitchen sink in here by any chance, have you?" she said. "'Cause I've already got one of those at home." She heaved it into the boot then stood back, panting slightly.
"Funny you should mention it." Dani waited patiently for Alison to close the boot then climbed into the passenger seat. "Thought I'd better come prepared. After all, you could live in a hovel without running water."
"Huh!" Alison eased into the driver's seat and reached for the safety belt. "I'll have you know it's a very desirable residence …." Her voice trailed off as she noticed the odd look on Dani's face.
"It's so strange to be back here," said Dani, scanning their surroundings. "In some ways it feels like I've never been away. But in other ways …." She glanced at Alison. "Has it changed much in ten years?"
"Cheltenham?" Alison turned the ignition key. The engine sparked into life.
She drove out of the station carpark and headed towards town. "A little. We've changed too."
Dani eyed her, her gaze serious. "That we have." She smiled warmly. "Thought you were never going to find 'the one', Ali. But you have, haven't you?"
Alison blushed and concentrated on her driving. "Yes," she said softly.
"I'm glad. It makes all the difference having someone there for you."
"So. When are you and he going to … you know?"
Dani's mouth quirked. "Sleep together? We did that years ago."
"Get married," corrected Alison, torn between laughter and exasperation.
"Never could resist teasing you," said Dani unapologetically. "But to answer your question … next March."
Alison almost braked in shock. For years now she'd been wondering when Dani and Joby, a translator Dani had met on her first posting to Washington, would get hitched, and for years her friend had been saying she was 'happy as she was'.
"What's changed?" She eyed her friend curiously.
"We want kids." Dani glanced at her, her cheeks flushing slightly. "Never thought I would - you know me - but I dunno, suddenly it just seems right to start a family."
"Wow!" Alison tapped her fingers on the steering wheel and waited for the lights to change. She realized, belatedly, that Dani was regarding her anxiously. "What?"
"Will that … make a difference?"
Alison had lost the thread of the conversation. "Your having kids?"
"Make a difference to me?" The lights turned to green and Alison pressed the accelerator.
Dani rolled her eyes. "Yes."
"No. Why should it?" Alison turned the car into Lansdown Crescent.
"Oh, you know. Sometimes couples with kids just don’t get on with couples without."
Alison parked on the little strip of gravel parking assigned to her block of flats and switched off the engine. "It only makes a difference if they let it, Dani. And I won’t let it. Besides, who knows, maybe one day, Summer and me …." She trailed off . The subject was not something she had thought about before, and its implications were mindboggling.
Dani sighed with relief. "That's good. 'Cause I’d hate to lose you as a friend, Ali."
"Me too." Alison opened the door and got out. She walked round to the boot and unlocked it, then lifted out the heavy rucksack. "Oof! Here. You packed it, you can carry it." She gestured towards the entrance to her block of flats. "It's thataway."
A startled Dani draped the rucksack over one shoulder then staggered across the gravel in the direction indicated. Alison suppressed a laugh and hurried to overtake her friend.
"Now," she said, opening the door and enjoying the almost comic look of dismay on Dani's face when she saw the stairs. "I'm afraid my highly desirable 'hovel' is right at the top. But it's only two flights. To someone as fit as you, it'll be a doddle."
With a longsuffering sigh, Dani started up the stairs ….
How do I get myself into things like this? wondered Summer. I'm supposed to be learning not teaching.
It hadn't taken Geoff Wyatt long to discover that Summer was an expert at both climbing and rappelling - years as an aerialist had strengthened her arm muscles and made her a dab hand at anything involving ropes - and he had literally roped her in to belay the others while he dealt with something that had cropped up unexpectedly.
She peered over the parapet. Phil and Justin had just finished rappelling and were sitting at the base of the three storey training tower waiting for their rubbery legs to recover. Justin glanced up at her, smiled and waved weakly. She waved back.
Time to call it a day, Summer decided. She swung herself up onto the parapet and shuffled backwards until her heels were just over the edge. She leaned back, letting the rope take the strain while she adjusted her balance, then 'walked' down the side of the tower, controlling her speed with her brake hand. It took only seconds, and then she was bending her knees slightly, letting the balls of her feet absorb the impact.
Wyatt was striding towards her. She stripped off the thick leather gloves that had stopped her getting rope burn and was removing her bright yellow helmet and harness when he reached her.
"Excellent job, Summer," he said. "Thanks. We'll break for dinner now."
A ragged cheer went up from the other rappellers and they limped towards the dining room.
"I'll be with you in a minute," said Summer. "I have to make a phone call."
Wyatt nodded and went to join the others. Summer, meanwhile, ran back to her room, taking the steps two at a time.
She picked up the phone and dialled the St. Helier number she now knew by heart.
"Hello?" said a woman's voice.
That someone had actually answered left Summer slightly off balance but she recovered quickly. "Miss Pargeter? My name is Summer Blake. I'm calling on behalf of Alison Carmichael."
"I'm sorry? Who did you say?" The voice was cultured and not at all dithery.
"Alison Carmichael. She was a Day Girl at Cheltenham Ladies College while you were Housemistress there."
"Alison Carm …oh. You mean young Ali." The warm remembrance of her lover's name raised Summer's hopes.
"That's right. Look, I know this is extremely short notice, Miss Pargeter, but I wonder if you could do me a huge favour. This coming Saturday night, Alison's schoolfriends - they call themselves 'the Day Girls of 89' - are holding a ten year reunion in the Cotswolds near Cheltenham, and I was wondering …"
For quarter of an hour, Summer talked. No matter how persuasively she argued, though - she would arrange the flight from Jersey, pick up Miss Pargeter at Staverton airport, run her to the reunion personally, the other woman could stay the night at Alison's mother's (she crossed her fingers when she made this promise) - she sensed she wasn't getting anywhere. The fact of the matter was that Miss Pargeter had just returned from holiday and the last thing on her mind was another jaunt.
At last, frustrated, Summer simply blurted, "But you've got to come. Alison wants you to."
There was a moment's silence, then Miss Pargeter said quietly, "Summer, dear. Would you like to tell me what your relationship with Ali is?"
But Miss Pargeter didn’t sound upset, more intrigued, so Summer decided to take a chance. "We … er …," she cleared her throat, "we're lovers, Miss Pargeter … we've been together a year now."
"So you know Alison well, intimately, in fact, and you believe it will make her happy if I come to her reunion?"
"Very well, then. I'll come."
"You …." Summer was nonplussed by the sudden capitulation. "You'll come?"
"That's right, dear. Now." Some questions about the reunion and who exactly would be there followed. "You said you could make arrangements … a flight to Staverton?" finished Miss Pargeter, when all had been answered to her satisfaction.
"Of course. And I'll meet you."
"Good. Make the arrangements then, dear, and get back to me with the finalized details."
Summer prepared to ring off but was stopped by Miss Pargeter saying, "Oh … before I forget, Summer. How will I recognize you?"
Summer mentally slapped herself across the head. "Um. Long black hair. Blue eyes. Six foot tall …."
"Goodness!" said the other woman faintly. "And how will you recognize me, dear?"
"Alison has some old school photos."
"Flattering ones, I hope?" A smile infused Miss Pargeter's voice.
"Undoubtedly," said Summer dryly, knowing that when it came to flattering, school snaps were on a par with passport photos.
"Well, then. Ring me when you have the details, Summer. And give my regards -" Miss Pargeter paused, and Summer could imagine her brain working. "On second thoughts, I presume this is meant as a surprise for Ali?"
"Then I'll give her my regards in person on Saturday night."
"I'm sure she'll like that. Talk to you soon."
"Soon, Summer. Goodbye."
"Are you sure you'll be OK?" asked Alison, trying to suppress a yawn and failing. They had talked late into the night until their voices were hoarse.
"I'll be fine," said Dani. "At least it's a three seater."
"Bet you diplomats don’t have to sleep on a sofa at the embassy."
"You'd be surprised. There was this time in Athens …."
"Yeah, yeah. Not another boring 'what I did on my last posting' story." Alison rolled her eyes.
Dani laughed. "No. I was just winding you up."
"Huh!" Alison eyed the large, frayed blue-and-white shirt her friend had laid out ready for the night, and wrinkled her nose. "Is that all a diplomat's salary will stretch to?"
Dani blushed. "Um … no. It's Joby's, actually." She examined her hands. "I always take it with me when I'm away … to remind me of him."
"Ah, how sweet!"
Dani looked up. "Either that or a red silk teddy." She gave a sly smile.
"And I suppose Summer's never bought you skimpy underwear?"
Alison opened her mouth to retort then shut it again quickly. "No comment," she said, blushing.
Alison put her hands on her hips and tried to look severe. "Now just you behave yourself, Missy Danielle, or you'll find yourself and your tatty old shirt spending the night on the pavement."
"Oh, now I'm really frightened."
"If Summer was here, I'd sic her on you."
They glanced at the photo on the mantelpiece. Summer, clad in her scarlet ringmaster's uniform, gazed gravely back at them. Alison had tried to get her to smile for the photographer but hadn't succeeded - for one so photogenic, Summer was oddly shy. Just being allowed to place the resulting framed photo on the mantelpiece had taken all Alison's persuasive powers.
"You miss her, don’t you?" said Dani softly.
"Yes," she admitted. "I'll be really glad when her course finishes."
"What's that all about?"
"The stunt work?" Alison sighed. "I don’t really know."
"Perhaps she's just bored with circus work. After all, she's been doing it since she was a kid, hasn't she?"
"Perhaps. I've been meaning to talk to her about it, actually. Waiting for an opportunity to approach it without getting her back up. Her career is her business, after all."
Dani regarded her sympathetically. "Give her time. It'll work itself out," she said.
Alison nodded. "I know." She brushed her lips against her old friend's cheek. "It's great having you here, Dani. Sleep well."
Dani smiled and returned the affectionate kiss. "Nighty night, Alligator."
Phil leaped for a rope and began to swing from one side of the gym to the other. "Me, Tarzan!" he yelled.
"More like Cheetah," muttered Summer.
They were warming up in the gym while waiting for Geoff Wyatt to arrive with his plans for the day. Justin had challenged Harriet to run the little obstacle course at the far end, and they were now faststepping over the lattice of tyres. Natasha was doing cartwheels, Mark sit-ups, and Tim and Jules were fencing.
Summer eyed the rope strung tautly between two posts, took a moment to centre herself, then stepped out onto it. Some wirewalkers used a pole to aid their balance, but Summer had always preferred to use her outstretched arms. She kept her gaze fixed firmly on her destination, and ran swiftly across.
"Nice one, Summer," called Justin.
"Right, people." Wyatt had come in to the gym unnoticed and now he clapped his hands for attention.
He beckoned to someone standing in the doorway, and a young woman with short mousey hair and wire rimmed glasses came hesitantly into the room. "This is Val. She's an ace with the Steadicam. She's going to be filming you this afternoon."
"What?" Phil dropped from his rope and landed with an inelegant thud. "What's this in aid of?"
"It's in aid of showing you what your stunts look like on camera," said Wyatt evenly. "In this business, an understanding of camera angles and techniques is crucial. The camera has no depth perception, so you can 'hit' people while still remaining a foot away from them. What matters is 'selling' the blow to the audience.
"So I've written an action scene - well, it's not much more than some basic stunts and a fight or two, really," he admitted, "and I want to rehearse it with you this morning. Then this afternoon we'll do it 'for real', and our expert -" he gestured at Val who blushed, "- will capture the result on videotape and you can see how you look on camera. Sound OK, everybody?"
"Sounds good to me," said Justin. Summer murmured her agreement, as did the other stuntees.
"Right, then." The course director pulled a crumpled and much folded piece of paper out of his pocket and spread it on the gym floor. "This is how I've mapped out the scene."
Summer crouched beside him and tried to make sense of the diagram.
"I've structured it in such a way is should make use of everything you've learned so far." Wyatt reached in a pocket and pulled out a couple of stick figures made from pipe cleaners. "I'll use these to illustrate the flips I want you to use."
Phil rolled his eyes, but Wyatt ignored him.
"I'm going to split you into two groups," continued Wyatt. "The good guys and the bad guys. As the scene opens, the bad guys are riding into town …."
"So, then Dani, Zoe, and I played 'Truth or Dare', and my dare was to put a shower cap on the statue in the quad," finished Alison, looking at her mother's startled face and trying not to laugh.
"Frilly, wasn't it?" mused Dani. "And pale mauve?"
"That's the one."
"Thought so. It belonged to Zoe's older sister, you know. She 'borrowed' it over the holidays. Never did give it back." Dani sipped her tea complacently. "Of course, when it came to Zoe's turn, she chickened out of her dare."
Alison frowned. "Did she? I don’t remember …."
"To kiss the gardener? That dishy young man in the green cords," prompted Dani. "You know, Ali. The one with the cute butt."
"Butt?" said Alison. "You've been mixing with Americans for too long!"
Veronica Carmichael looked uncertain whether to be flattered at being included in their conversation or shocked at its subject matter. "You haven't changed a bit, have you, Danielle?" she said.
Dani grinned cheekily. "Nope. Incorrigible as ever."
Alison noticed the by-play between her mother and her old friend and suppressed a grin. She took another sip of her tea and thought back to the 'dishy' gardener in question. "I wouldn’t have noticed anyway."
Two pairs of eyes regarded her blankly. "Noticed what?" asked Dani.
"The gardener's 'cute butt'."
"Oh … no." Dani belatedly grasped her meaning. "Funny. I can't believe I never twigged you were gay -"
"I'll fetch us some more tea," said Alison's mother, rising and hurrying from the room.
Dani gave Alison a significant look. "She's still not comfortable with it?"
Alison shrugged. "She's better than she was. Of course, it didn’t help that I picked someone who works in the circus, a woman too, to fall in love with." A gurgle of laughter escaped her, though it wasn't really amusing. "Two of mother's worst case scenarios."
Dani smiled sympathetically. "She loves you though. She'll come around; I can tell."
"Yeah," said Alison. "I know. And she's getting better - much more relaxed with Summer than she was."
"So her agreeing to have the Big Top in her garden is, like, a major step for her, then?"
Alison nodded. "When I suggested it, I never thought she'd say yes. Of course it helps that it's for the old girls -"
"And their partners, don’t forget. Who knows what scumbags our crowd have shacked up with?"
"Ooh yes." Alison giggled. "Megan Gallagher had pretty lousy taste in boyfriends even then."
"What was his name … Colin … no, Callum?"
"Clem. Thought he was James Dean, but actually he looked more like Plug from the Bash Street Kids. And that rusted old bucket of a motorbike -"
"Which he thought looked so cool …."
The memory provoked a fit of the giggles and they were still leaning helplessly against one another when Alison's mother reappeared with a pot of fresh tea and a plate of macaroons.
She put the tray down, folded her arms and looked fondly at the two friends as they tried to regain control. "No," she said. "Some things never change."
Summer reined in the horse, leaped off him, and reached for the fleeing bad guy. They went sprawling to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs, but a thick layer of soft dirt cushioned the fall. She let her body relax to absorb the impact, as she'd been taught, then jackknifed upright and went into the choreographed slugfest that Geoff had gone over and over with her until she had it down pat.
First a right to Phil's jaw (which missed him by a comfortable margin) then a knee to the groin (which again didn't touch him). Both times, Bullet Head's reaction was a fraction too slow.
"C'mon, sell it, Phil," called Geoff from off camera.
At this point in the scene, the tide of battle was supposed to turn dramatically, Summer remembered. She got ready to react.
Phil smirked melodramatically (if he'd had a moustache he'd have twirled it, thought Summer, resisting the impulse to roll her eyes) then he kicked her in the stomach … for real.
The air whooshed out of Summer's lungs. She dropped to her knees, clutching herself against the pain, and fighting for breath. For a moment she thought she was going to pass out.
"Cut!" yelled Wyatt.
"Sorry, Summer," said Phil.
Air reached her lungs at last, and she sat back on her heels gratefully and concentrated on simply breathing. Shit, but that hurt!
"Summer, Summer. Are you OK?" Belatedly she realized that Justin was crouching next to her, his face concerned.
"Just peachy," she panted.
The red-haired young man shot Phil a stormy look, but the other man just smiled slightly and Summer had the distinct suspicion he had deliberately kicked her.
Justin's face was replaced by Wyatt's. "OK, everyone. Five minute break." He held out a hand and helped her up. "That shouldn’t have happened," he apologized. She shrugged. "You were doing great too."
He nodded. "The camera loves you."
She raised an eyebrow in disbelief.
"It does. Well, you'll see for yourself later when you watch the home movie." He glanced distractedly at Phil who was filling in the time doing press-ups. "Unfortunately, it hates him." He sighed. "Oh well, there's always theatre."
Summer suppressed a smile.
Wyatt turned his gaze back to her again. "Feeling OK to continue yet?"
Much to her relief, the pain in her abdomen had eased to a tingling sensation. She nodded.
He gave her an approving look. "Good." Then he turned back to the waiting stuntmen and Steadicam operator.
"OK, people," he yelled. "Break's over. Let's take that scene from the top. Positions, please."
A wrangler led Summer's horse towards her and she put her foot in the stirrup and mounted, feeling a twinge from her abused stomach. She sighed and nudged the horse over to the starting position.
"Everyone set? Phil? Summer?" asked Wyatt.
"And … Action."
Summer kneed her horse forward, and once more the bad guy began to flee.
This time if he kicks me in the stomach, she resolved grimly, I'm going to kick him right back!
Alison raised an eyebrow at Dani. "Maybe this wasn't such a great idea."
The lounge bar of The Queen's Hotel was heaving with people, and there wasn't a spare armchair in sight.
"Sure it was," disagreed Dani, elbowing her way between smartly dressed drinkers toward the bar. "You can't stay home on a Friday night. Anyway, they'll be gone in a few - the concert's due to start soon."
Sure enough, a quarter of an hour later - ten minutes of which Alison had spent trying to catch the busy bartender's eye - there was a mass exodus. It didn’t leave the elegantly furnished lounge bar completely empty, by any means, but it did release two previously occupied armchairs over by the bay windows.
Dani was on them like a panther. Alison's progress was more sedate, since she was carrying their drinks.
"Never knew you could move that fast," said Alison.
They sank into the comfortable cushions and turned to gaze out of the huge windows at the chattering throng of concert-goers heading across the Imperial Gardens towards the Town Hall. When the bartender refilled the bowls on the little table next to them with free peanuts and cashew nuts, Dani's contented grin widened.
"I'd forgotten how civilized this place is."
Alison nodded sagely. "What other pub do you know that plays Vivaldi?"
"Personally, I can take or leave classical music," said Dani, taking another gulp of her vodka and orange.
"What about Summer? What sort of music does she like?"
"She loves Soul Music, but she'll listen to pretty much anything, as long as it's loud." Alison sipped her white wine. "I swear, you can hear the radio in her caravan a mile away."
Dani grinned. "A woman after my own heart."
"Hands off! … She's already taken."
They grinned companionably at each other.
Dani regarded their surroundings again. "Remember when we used to sneak in here? We thought we were being so daring, drinking while underage."
"We were. If one of the mistresses had caught us …"
"Ah, but that was part of the excitement."
"We must have been crazy," said Alison, remembering. "Our pocket money would have gone twice as far if we'd gone to another pub …"
"Ah, but dwaarling," Dani put on a mock posh voice, "the ambience, the better class of people -"
"Well, well, well .. what have we here? An old girls' reunion?" The voice from their past made them both freeze.
After a moment, Alison craned her head round, praying she was mistaken. The voice's owner was lounging against the wall nearby, her thin arms folded across her bony, black T-shirt clad chest.
Shit. It's Alice Sharp. She tried to speak but nothing came out. She cleared her throat and tried again. "Hello, Alice." She forced a smile. "How are you?"
"Alice," said Dani evenly.
Another woman, wearing a pale tangerine dress, joined Alice. "Hey, Alice, we need to get goi - " The new arrival's voice trailed off as she took in Alison and Dani. "Well, look what's crawled out of the woodwork!"
Katie Hughes, thought Alison, though the wedding ring meant Katie's surname was probably different now. A rose by any other name. Or should that be a pile of shit by any other name?
"Katie." Dani nodded politely, and Alison suddenly envied her friend her diplomatic training.
Alice looked round, clearly searching for someone. "What, no Zoe? You three were always inseparable."
"So were you," said Dani. "Where is Lauren?"
"We're meeting up with her later," said Alice. "Why? Wanna come along and rehash the good old days?"
Alison's heart was beating rapidly. She took a carefully concealed breath, fighting against nausea. There was no rational reason why she should still feel this creeping dread at the sight of Alice and Katie. She was no longer a teenager, trapped and vulnerable to the intimidation of the class bullies. But feel it she did. And she just knew she had to get out of here …
"Well," she stood up decisively. ""I'm sorry we have to love you and leave you, girls," - Dani saw her cue and got up too - "but we'd better hurry or we'll be late for the concert."
"The concert. Right," agreed Dani.
"Since when did you two like Mozart?" Katie's lip curled.
"It's Elgar, actually." Alison turned to Dani. "Coming?" Without further ado, she headed for the lounge bar exit, and after a moment Dani followed her.
"It won’t work, you know," called Alice after them. "If Dani's here I know there must be a reason."
"Keep walking," muttered Dani, almost treading on Alison's heels.
"And if there is, you can bet we'll find it," yelled Alice, bringing disapproving looks from the other patrons.
"Told you this wasn't such a great idea," groaned Alison. Then she and Dani were pushing their way through two sets of solid doors out into the welcome cool of a July evening.
"No self control, that's your trouble," Summer chided herself, as she turned the van into Lansdown Crescent. She parked outside Alison's flat, attached the crooklock to the steering wheel, and locked the van. Then she ran across the gravel, jabbed the key in the front door, and started up the stairs, two at a time.
You only had to last one more night. But could you? Pitiful!
The longing to be with Alison had overtaken her in the middle of dinner. A craving she knew a mere phone call couldn’t assuage. She had battled against it for all of … oh, must've been a good half an hour … before she had made her excuses and started on the drive back to Cheltenham. It had been harder to get away than it might have been. The others were planning to go to the pub to celebrate the last night of the course, and Justin in particular had wanted her to go with them ….
She flung open the flat door and rushed in, switching on the light and shucking her jacket in one movement. It took only a moment to strip off her shirt and bra, to undo her belt, the top button of her jeans, the zip. So close. Her jeans were at half mast, she had managed to tug off one boot, and she was hopping the remaining few yards to the bedroom, when a startled squawk from the sofa brought her to an abrupt halt.
There was a sleeping bag on the sofa, she noticed, in puzzlement. An occupied sleeping bag. And a strange woman with curly blonde hair and grey eyes was goggling at her …. Oh Shit! Alison's school friend.
The bedroom door opened and a startled blonde in a large white T-shirt inscribed 'Bunnikins' peered round it. "What the …?"
Deciding attack was the best defence, Summer hopped the final yard and took Alison down with a flying tackle that would have done the All Blacks proud. The door crashed closed behind them.
"Oof!" said Alison, as they landed in a tangle on the bed.
"Hi, honey, I'm home." Then Summer ruined her attempt at nonchalance by bursting into embarrassed giggles. "Sorry!" she gasped when she got her breath back. "I forgot you'd have company."
She could feel Alison's body trembling, and looked up to find her lover's surprise had changed to merriment. "Oh God. Dani'll never let me forget this," said Alison. "What are you doing here, Summer? I wasn't expecting you 'til tomorrow."
Summer sighed and tugged off her remaining boot. "I missed you," she said simply. She sat up and stripped off her remaining clothes, ruefully noticing the spectacular bruise developing nicely on her abdomen. "Anyway, can't a woman come home and make love to her partner when she feels like it?"
Suiting the word to the deed she leaned forward and sucked Alison's lower lip, before darting her tongue into her mouth. Alison moaned deep in her throat, the sound sending chills down Summer's spine. She pulled back and gazed into green eyes whose pupils were now dilated.
"Of course she can," said Alison.
Summer eyed Alison's T-shirt disapprovingly. "Take that off." Obligingly, Alison did so, in her haste getting it caught over her head.
Summer gazed at the breasts now on display and couldn’t resist. She took one nipple in her mouth and felt it harden, then fondled the other, causing her lover to squirm, and curse, and groan …. When Alison finally managed to free herself from her T-shirt, she was panting and very aroused.
Now this, thought Summer appreciatively, is worth coming home for!
CONTINUED IN PART 4